What do fairy tales have to do with writing a winning case study?
It’s easy to describe your product or service when trying to promote it. After all, the detail is what gets you excited and is what you think you need to tell your audience about.
So, when it comes to writing a case study or success story for use in a proposal, in a slide deck or on your website, naturally most of us fall into the trap of forgetting about the story behind the case study - and that’s actually this bit which sells your service or product to a potential customer.
I’ve often used a simple analogy to describe the perfect case study; try to write your case study in the same structure as a great children’s story.
The five components of a great case study
A long time ago (and if you read this and it’s you let me know so I can thank you!) someone described to me four simple components of any case study. I’ve adapted the approach, adding a fifth feature, but the approach remains the same.
My teams over the years have heard me use this analogy so many times that when I draw these pictures on a whiteboard or flipchart I hear groans around the room… but it’s so simple and easy to apply still I love to use it to test content produced by the bid teams I work with to see if their case studies are selling or telling.
The five components are:
The brave knight - the hero of the story, who is here to save the day.
The villagers - the people the knight is looking after.
The pot of gold - the thing the hero is trying to reach.
A treacherous mountain - representing the journey the hero has to take in their pursuit of the pot of gold.
A dragon - a big challenge the brave knight has to overcome on his journey.
Put these five in order, and you have the foundation of a great story and the structure for a fantastic case study:
The villagers are starving. Their crops are failing and they need gold to buy food for the winter… [The customer is losing money and needs to rationalise / improve / develop something. Without help their business will fail.]
The brave knight needs to reach a pot of gold far far away, and goes on an amazing journey through the mountains to retrieve it for the villagers. [You apply the service / product you provide, describing the key points and how they helped the customer.]
Along this treacherous journey the knight must face a fearsome dragon, but thanks to his skill-set, he’s able to slay the dragon and reach the pot of gold. [There is a big challenge you faced with the customer, but thanks to your superior service / product, you overcame that challenge.]
He returns the gold to the villagers, saving the day. You helped the customer realise their business plan / project objectives, saving their business.
It sounds simple, but how many of your case studies describe the problem, the journey and approach, a solution and a successful outcome which links back to the problem faced in the first place?
Applying this structure will help sell your product, taking the reader on the journey, helping them to see affinity between the problems they face and those of your customer in the story.
But... be careful to get the balance right:
Too many dragons
One common pitfall I see in case studies is that there are too many dragons, ie. the case study lists endless challenges often without a solution to match them.
Whilst it’s important to try and show depth in the story, you need to find a balance and focus on the challenges which will resonate with your target client. Write with the reader in mind.
There may be a large number of issues or challenges your client faced, but this doesn’t mean you have to list every one. Think about the challenges your target client is facing and focus on them, you want the reader to think “this is exactly the problem I’m facing” as they read the case study.
Your journey took forever… or you missed the journey entirely
Getting the journey section of your case study right is challenging. Often I read case studies which are almost entirely consist of the journey, describing in detail the processes and solutions without considering how these link back to the challenges faced or the end goal of the client.
Architects and engineers are often culprits for this, and whilst describing in detail the type of cladding used on your new school may be of great interest to you, your reader is likely more interested in whether you achieved the objectives you set out to meet on the project.
(I can’t completely blame Architects for this, they’re taught to write detailed crits of their work so naturally fall into the trap of describing in great detail the architectural solution rather than the business outcomes their client achieved).
At the opposite end of the spectrum, don’t miss the journey.
This is an easy pitfall for sales people to fall into; they are good at describing the problem and what the client needed to achieve, but naturally move straight to the results without describing how their service or product actually helped the client achieve it.
The journey the client goes through gives depth and authenticity to your case study, so including the right level of detail, targeted at your reader’s hot buttons and issues, will make your story stand out from the pack.
You brought back magic beans instead of gold
Now, if Jack taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with magic beans. After all, had he not traded his cow for them he wouldn’t have ended up with the goose that lays the golden eggs. But, it’s not what he set out to do, and it could have all ended very differently.
The final pitfall you need to consider is making sure the outcome you detail through your case study matches the initial problem your client faced. And I say outcome, because in your ‘happily ever after’ you want to be describing the measurable outcomes the client achieved thanks to your help, not just the solution you provided.
Making sure the end result matches the initial problem is vital to giving your case study a rounded and logical story structure, and also helps the reader to see the benefits of your service or product, eg. if you’re selling sustainability or energy efficiency through your case study, make sure the initial problem your client faced was that they weren’t meeting energy targets or their facilities were costing too much money to run.
Balancing the case study to suit your reader
Getting the balance right is challenging. Before you put pen to paper you should consider what your target client wants to hear about, and whether the case study you’ve selected tells the right story.
Often, going beyond superficial matching of completed projects and your target opportunity (eg. just selecting a case study because it’s in the same sector) and digging into the buyer persona and their actual needs, pain points and hot buttons will deliver a better result.
I’ve applied this process to break into new sectors (eg. winning a place on a major airport group’s framework whilst my company had no significant aviation experience) and when creating bespoke literature and presentations for potential clients.
It’s the detail that matters to customers, so get your story right and you’re one step closer to closing the deal.